Our StorY: Past, Present and Future
The Struggle is Real! Aquarium Plants in the mid 2000s.
It all began with a disaster. I was keeping several aquariums at the time ( which had been the case since I was a small child). I had just purchased a few plants and was excited to add them to my prized, thickly planted, 35-gallon shrimp breeding tank (complete with CO2). Because this tank was home to an abundant and thriving population of shrimp, I had been vigilant about putting in anything new lest they hurt my beloved colony. However, I had been looking for one particular species for a long time and finally found it in a chain store at the mall - origins unknown.
The selection and availability of high-quality plants at my local fish stores and online shops were then usually quite limited - especially Tissue Culture (In-Vitro) plants. Their quality was often terrible (and prices very high). It was surprising for a large city and many of the best stores for aquarium plants were going out of business. It was a struggle, at the time, to find plants at all - let alone a specific species.
On the occasion I did find plants I wanted in dealers' tanks, they often looked like they had traveled halfway around the world (they had) and were almost always in some form of decline. They were also very expensive. Tissue Culture plants available at the time were limited to a dozen or fewer species and that would show up on a rotating basis at the local fish store. Compared to tank plants, these were fantastic. They were frequently unusual species that were particularly interesting, came with large numbers of plantlets, and were free of algae and pests. However, these Tissue Cultures had their downsides as well. They were often in poor shape, having spent a long time in transit before getting to the store and took a long time to acclimate after being planted, which resulted in gobs of melting plants, bad water quality and clogged filters.
Aquarium plant massacre: This Can't Be Happening!!!
It might come as a surprise but the plant I was desperately searching for that I was sure would "complete" my shrimp tank was just simple Water Sprite. It was too common for the enthusiasts but not common enough for my neighborhood stores (which often sold submerged terrestrial plants). It was basically in some form of "market purgatory". After months of searching, I finally glimpsed the unmistakable leaves of the Common Water Sprite out of the corner of my eye. My excitement was palpable, I could barely talk straight and rambled what I'm sure sounded like nonsense at the sales associate before realizing their eyes had glossed over. I bought as many bunches as I could afford and ecstatically headed home to realize my aquascaping dreams. Those dreams quickly turned into a nightmare that almost made me give up the hobby.
I did my due diligence - knowing the plant had come out of a big-box store dealer tank and was probably full of pests, algae, diseases, and god-knows-what. I cleaned each leaf and stem under running water and gave the bunches a good soak to kill what hitch-hikers I could before dutifully rinsing them again and running to my tank to fill in the spots I had reserved for these precious plants.
Within seconds of the plants touching the water, I knew something was horribly wrong. The shrimp in my tank began frantically racing around, buzzing back and forth - aimlessly crashing into hardscape and other plants. At first, I entertained the idea that they were as excited as I was but it soon became apparent that something was very very wrong. The shrimp started to lose coordination as if drunk, some ended up on their backs, others were not moving.
Confused, I immediately removed the plants, but it was too late. My beloved colony of shrimp (including heavily berried females and new shrimplets), the pride of all my aquarium livestock, started turning purple and slowly dying off - as if to torture me. I attempted to rescue as many as I could and soon there were buckets strewn all over my house. I was doing water change after water change in hopes of a recovery. The Water Sprite was long gone, sitting in its own bucket. I separated the shrimp into multiple rescue containers and hospital tanks. At times it looked like some were getting better but within a couple of days, they had all died - one by one, turning a purplish color I'd never seen before, generally tightly curled up.
I felt like I'd been stabbed through the heart and could not understand what happened. I can still feel the pain and helplessness just writing about it today.
The Global Supply Chain - How Aquarium Plants can Kill.
After frantically researching the cause of what had happened, I found a footnote in an old Practical Fishkeeping article which explained that many countries that produce the bulk of our aquarium plants (such as Malaysia and Singapore) legally require that plants intended for export are first treated with pesticides. These pesticides, naturally, have to be harmless to fish but invertebrates like shrimp were fairly new to the hobby at the time and have a completely different sensitivity profile compared to vertebrates. Their circulatory and nervous systems are completely different and are sensitive to countless compounds that would be harmless to us.
With a bit more research, I was able to identify the class of pesticides and the prognosis for my tank was dire. Whatever killed my shrimp was one of a class of chemicals that are widely used in the agricultural and horticultural industry to kill pests - mostly targeting arthropods like insects (specifically, thrips) - while being theoretically harmless to vertebrates like ourselves and our fish. Unfortunately for me, shrimp are arthropods.
Since the introduction of this class of pesticide compounds, they've been widely used and assumed to be harmless to humans. That didn't always turn out to be the case and many are banned in jurisdictions such as California where they have resulted in epidemic illnesses in farmworkers and greatly increased cancer risk among those who were told that they were non-toxic. Subsequent investigations (and lawsuits) found that these were indeed harmful to humans and several derivatives were removed from the market.
Unfortunately, hundreds of derivatives of these pesticides exist and only a few are banned, and even banned compounds are still available elsewhere. California law does not apply in Malaysia.
Since the incidents in California, there have been more pesticide derivatives that have come onto the market that are (most likely) less toxic to the people handling them but no less toxic to arthropods and invertebrates. These compounds happen to be extremely effective (as my shrimp found out), easily available and continue to be used in plants destined for the export market: including the United States and Canada. Some more reputable companies avoid them but many do not and when plants are placed together in a dealers' tank, the clean plants will end up becoming contaminated and end up just as toxic.
Since the incident, my partners and I performed experiments to determine how common these toxic plants were, and the result was shocking. We gathered different plants from numerous retailers - mostly chain stores and discovered that the vast majority of aquarium plants being sold were toxic to shrimp in the exact same way. The only safe plants were from reputable local fish stores that use only plants from a single producer and the lack of discussion about this issue, limited in my research to a footnote in a magazine, was abhorrent. Now, since shrimp-keeping has become a much more popular hobby, my hope is that off-shore aquarium plant producers have realized how bad things were and changed their strategies but the risk remains even today.
Long term consequences of pesticide treated plants for your aquarium.
This family of compounds, like many pesticides, are lipophilic - meaning they dissolve in fats and "non polar" organic solvents rather than polar solvents like water. They are water soluble enough to almost instantly get into your aquarium water supply but the vast majority of the compound does not. What does end up in the water column does not remain there long and soon find themselves clinging to surfaces such as other plant leaves, hardscape, substrate, filter media, and even your tank glass and silicone. That means no number of water changes can remove them - they've essentially embedded themselves all over the tank - and for planted aquariums with lots of surfaces, it could be months to years before you could safely reintroduce arthropods again. They only way to clean them off is with often toxic organic solvents which is not an option if you have other aquarium plants. The only why they'll go away is being chemically broken down - which can take an immense amount of time depending on the exact compound you are dealing with. For many planted aquairum enthusiasts, that means thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours down the drain and a contaminated aquarium that is unable to host shrimp, crabs, crayfish or any number of arthropods that we've come to love in this hobby. The only "cure" is to avoid exposure in the first place.
The Birth of ABC Plants - Bringing Aquarium Plant Production Back Home.
After discovering the sheer scale of the problem, our team was determined to do something so that no one else would experience such a tragedy while also improving access to a wider variety of plants that may not be be readily available.
Naturally, living in a city with bitter winters and limited space is a challenging environment to be producing tropical plants compared to the tropical paradises these plants are normally produced in but when there's a will, there's a way.
We quickly decided that Tissue Culture is the best (and only) way to go in order to offer the variety and quality of plants to our customers. Tissue Culture plants (also know as micro-propagation or in-vitro) take up very little physical space - require little lighting and result in plants are a pest, algae, and disease free - naturally - without pesticides.
We were determined to bring the production of tropical aquarium (and terrarium) plants back home - so much maufacturing has left the US and Canada over the decades but it made sense to bring high tech plant production back!
Tissue Culture Aquarium Plants: Now Better Than Ever!
As it turns out, Tissue Culturing plants - especially aquarium plants due to their unique physiology and growth environments is really really hard. Even armed with our various biology degrees, it was an enormous challenge to just get the first few plants in culture.
In addition, existing Tissue Culture Aquarium plants at the time, from some of the big names have traditionally had problems that had kept them from becoming mainstream despite the obvious advantages. Their long shelf life, lack of unwanted organisms, and small footprints were often overlooked because they had been traditionally difficult to acclimate to living submerged in an aquarium. They were slow to grow and had an unfortunate tendency to melt before recovering. Despite those issues, we pushed ahead because we knew we could do better if we started at the beginning and addressed any potential shortcomings.
Over the last 7 years, our small but growing team has spent a tremendous amount of time, labor, brain power, and sheer will to research new and better ways to grow Tissue Culture aquarium plants. Our hard work has paid off and continues to dramatically improve the quality of these products. We've developed proprietary techniques to produce Tissue Culture aquarium plants that are far better and are now known for easy acclimation and rapid growth. Today ABC Plants produces aquarium and terrarium plants that are second to none. Our research has changed the Tissue Culture plants from a curiosity into a truly viable, convenient, and superior way to produce aquarium plants and is regarded by many as the best aquarium and terrarium plants available in any format!
Beyond Aquarium Plants: ABC Plants and Looking Toward the Future
Having developed an impressive profile of quality aquarium plants while surviving Covid and the lockdowns, we are turning our attention toward the future. Rather than simply culturing endless aquarium plant species, we are developing new and better ways for everyone - novice to professional - to create the best planted aquariums possible. Highlights include the CO2ONE system, a revolutionary new method of providing desperately needed CO2 to your aquarium plants without the need for inconvenient, awkward CO2 cylinders, expensive and wasteful disposable cartridges, or messy and often ineffective DIY methods. A truly all-in-the-box aquarium CO2 kit suitable for novices and professionals alike that stands alone.
We are also working on terrarium plants, including perennially popular carnivorous plants such as fly traps and Droseras as well as highly sought-after Aroids varieties such as Philodendrons, Monsteras, and Pothos. We even have cacti!
Keep checking back as we grow and evolve as we hope to further the science, art, and applications of not just Tissue Culture plants but pioneer stunning new innovations for all plant lovers. From fertilizer to disease prevention and control, we hope to one day touch and improve every facet of horticulture and ornamental plant keeping.
P.S. What about the Water Sprite?
It ended up being one of the first plants we cultured. A current photo of our Tissue Culture Water Sprite is on the left. Not only can you now purchase the plant that started the whole thing without any fear that it will harm your shrimp, but it's also guaranteed to be algae-free and will never carry snails, pests such as hydra, and planaria or diseases. No need to soak or quarantine!
Water Sprite remains one of my favorite plants and is an amazing choice for shrimp keepers to create beautifully planted environments for your colony - even without CO2 or high lighting. It was one of the best shrimp plants then and is still one of the best today. Read more about it on its product page.